One moral theory in ethics is the Social Contract Theory, which tells us “that morality is essentially a cooperative enterprise, and that moral rules are those that self-interested people would obey on the condition that all others do as well” (Shafer-Landau 3, 2015). This means that people in a society agree tacitly to the rules set forth by it, and that abiding to these rules is in their best self-interest because they will get benefits and not be punished for disobeying. The Social Contract theory likens society to a club of sorts.
When an individual joins a club, they agree to the rules set forth, and by obeying the rules they receive benefits. That is also how society works: a person follows the rules and contributes, and in turn is rewarded. However, there is the problem of free riders, which are people that profit from the goods and services of society without paying for or contributing to them. In this paper I will be examining arguments for and against being a free rider, and ultimately determine that being one is wrong, immoral, and irrational.
To begin, being a free rider does have a certain appeal. An example of a free rider is someone who does not vaccinate their children (out of fear that vaccines are dangerous) and benefits from herd immunity. If everyone else in society is abiding and vaccinating their children, then if one person does not, then it will not have a large negative consequence. Also, that person will still get the benefits without having to put in the work, or their children at risk.
The reason it is not immoral is because if only a few people do it, then society will not be harmed and neither will the people contributing, nor it is not irrational because it results in getting the benefits without having to pay the price for them (which is the ideal situation). In standard form it would look like this: P1: The free rider will still receive benefits without paying/contributing to the service, so it is in their absolute best interest overall. P2: A few people being free riders will not be detrimental to society or the people contributing.
P3: Doing what is in a person’s best interest is rational, and not harming people is morally correct. C: Therefore, it is morally and rationally correct to be a free rider. The Social Contract theory is based upon people doing what is in their complete best interest, and getting services and goods for free is in their best interest rather than paying for them. People are naturally going to do the action that results in what is best for them because that is what rational and self-interested people do, and in the case of non-vaccinators they are also trying to protect their children from perceived dangers (such as getting autism).
However, there is also significant reasons against being a free rider. Often, it is not only a few individuals who take advantage of the system, but rather large groups, and when this happens then the system fails. Going back to the example of vaccinations, since there has been an increase in parents not vaccinating their children there has been an increase in diseases such as measles and whooping cough coming back. These people are also putting other children who cannot get vaccines due to health problems at risk.
So not only are they harming society, they are also putting their own children and others at risk for possibly dying from something that could easily be prevented. In standard form this argument would look like this: P1: The free rider is not alone, and as increasing numbers of people take advantage of the system and do not contribute, the system starts to fail and so nobody (free rider or contributor) gets the benefits. P2: The free rider, while gaining benefits, is putting others at risk for getting harmed or losing the service they contribute to.
P3: Contributing to the failure of a system one benefits from is irrational, and possibly harming others is immoral. C: Therefore, being a free rider is immoral and irrational. It is immoral to endanger someone else, especially one’s own children, out of the selfish desire to not have to pay for a service. In the case of vaccinations, it could literally lead to someone dying from a deadly disease. It is also irrational because as more people stop vaccinating their children, then the herd immunity stops being effective and so their children that they sought to protect are put at risk (thus defeating the purpose of not vaccinating).
Returning to the argument for being a free rider, one would seek to examine its validity and soundness. The argument is valid because if the two premises are assumed to be true, then the conclusion logically follows. However, when examining the argument’s soundness, one can find issues in premise two. A free rider is essentially taking advantage of all the people subsidizing the service, and that violates the social contract because they had tacitly agreed to society’s rules, which includes doing their part and giving back to the community.
A response that a supporter of free riders could say is that the person never explicitly gave their consent to be governed by the rules of that society, so therefore they have no moral obligation to follow them. However, if they chose to stay in the society then they tacitly gave their consent to be held to the same standards as the others, which means they are still morally obligated to obey the rules and contribute to the services they want to use. Looking back at the argument against being a free rider, the same questions about its validity and soundness arise.
Once again, it is a valid argument because the conclusion logically follows the two presumably true premises. This argument is also sound because the premises are legitimately true. There will never only be one free rider, because more than one person will not want to pay the price for the service. As the number of free riders can and most likely will grow to a large number, the service will fail and most likely be taken away, which hurts the free riders and the contributing citizens.
It is irrational to cause a service you use to fail (as you will no longer get what you were unwilling to pay for), and it is immoral to intentionally do actions that lead to others being harmed. An argument that could be raised against this is that if it is inevitable that people are going to take advantage of the system, then why would someone not join in and get the benefits while they last without having to pay the price?
However, a reply to this is that it is that type of thinking that causes the free riding problem in the first place. If nobody thought that way, then there would not be any free riders and thus nobody would be taken advantage of and the system would remain functional and stable. After examining both arguments, I would say that the argument against being a free rider is both stronger and the one that aligns with my own morals.
I would not be a free rider not only because I do not want to take advantage of others, but because I realize that in the long run paying for the service will have the most beneficial results. The more people pay into the system (or vaccinate their children), the more I and others will be helped, which is the rational action to take in the long run. Also, morally it is not okay to be a free rider because the people that are paying into the system do not consent to having the system (and themselves) be abused by selfish people.
In the case of vaccination, the people who fear their children getting autism have one, been severely mislead by falsified unscientific experiments, and two, do not realize that their child having autism is not nearly as appalling as their child being dead or killing another child by giving them a deadly sickness. If these people looked at actual data, they would realize that vaccination is the safest option for their children, and would not be tempted to rely on herd immunity. Some people choose to be free riders because they feel it is in their best interest, as they get the benefits without having to actually pay for them.
In the case of vaccinations, some parents do not vaccinate their children because they feel that they will be safe due to herd immunity and do not have to theoretically put their children at risk for autism. Some people choose to not be free riders because they feel that taking advantage of the system will lead to the system failing, and everyone losing the service provided. In the case of vaccinations, they do not want to risk the health of their children or others and so believe that vaccinating is the best option in the long run and for everyone.
People can object to free riders and say that they are violating the social contract theory, but people can also argue that there will be one inevitably because regardless of whether or not you choose to be one, others certainly will be. However, the argument against being one is stronger because it makes more rational sense to uphold the society one is a part of rather than be a part of the reason it crumbles. I would not be a free rider because it is irrational to be one and immoral to take advantage of people, and that is why I believe it is wrong.